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Taking It All In

By David Greenberger

Bob Dylan and His Band, Elvis Costello

Times Union Center, Oct. 6

Besides having created towering bodies of work as musical artists, Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello both understand the dynamics of show business. Though their public debuts were a decade and a half apart, they each found reason to jettison their given names in exchange for identities that would create a desired effect in the marketplace. The erstwhile misters Zimmerman and MacManus appeared on the same bill last Saturday at the Times Union Center (with Amos Lee in the unenviable position of having to play a short set of recently minted songs for an audience awaiting the confluence of memory and moment to goose them into a middle-aged high). Though they didn’t take the stage together at any point during the night, their adjacent sets allow for some thoughts on their similarities and differences.

Both men had powerful managers who succeeded in positioning them well from the outset, creating a base that allowed each of them to pursue their artistic inclinations, long after having parted ways (Dylan’s being Albert Grossman, Costello’s Jake Riviera). However, while generally faithful to their creative instincts, they each have made unsuccessful albums, failing because of their misguided attempts to either regain or enlarge their commercial standing. Dylan has had a handful of scattershot attempts (among them, Down in the Groove, Under the Red Sky, and Dylan and the Dead), while Costello needed to bottom out with Goodbye Cruel World before regaining his bearings. Other than a brief excursion over to David Geffen’s company in the ’70s, Dylan has spent the entirety of his career on Columbia Records, the same label on which Costello made his initial and largest splash (he left in 1986, after his 11th album).

Playing in an arena gave a certain regimentation to the night’s momentum. Costello’s 45-minute solo set was greeted with honest cheers that would have brought him back for an encore were it not for the lights coming up to quell the elation. His set included his earliest song (“Radio Sweetheart”) and a couple so new that they’ve not yet been released (“Down Among the Wines and Spirits” and “From Sulfur to Sugarcane,” co-written with T-Bone Burnett). This scribe’s favorite Costello number, “Blue Chair,” even made the list. Costello happily used the cavernous room’s acoustics, letting his voice linger on notes to bounce off the rafters. Though he was one man with a guitar, he presented himself not as a troubadour, but as a songwriter, inferring the songs’ larger arrangement possibilities and relishing the grooves. His outrage at the ongoing war in Iraq, as well as governmental failures at home, informed some of his choice of material as well as between-song anecdotes and observations. Songs such as “The River in Reverse” and “The Scarlet Tide” carry incredible power because he eschews sloganeering for poetic resonance or human-scaled narratives.

Dylan has done something that very few 60-plus artists achieve: He’s continued to replenish his audience with younger listeners. In his case this has been essential to the vitality of his ongoing tour, because it’s the audience members who are his own generational peers that grouse the most about the performances. Their complaints (“I didn’t recognize the song,” “His words were garbled,” etc.) simply describe their need for music to reassure, rather than challenge or surprise. Dylan has created songs so durable that they can disappear behind the engine of a great band. The songs become a means for six people to align themselves together in time and space and create an energy that would be different in any other configuration and in any other moment. Musical enrichment of that order is a rare commodity, and Dylan makes a case for it every time he takes the stage. No two nights are the same, and some are better than others, just like life itself. What we want from a Dylan concert is transcendence. It’s hard to pull that off in an arena, but he certainly hit his fall-back position: a great performance.

It’s a Wash

Bob Dylan and His Band, Elvis Costello

Times Union Center, Oct. 6

The following overheard ex change, between two college-age kids outside the bathroom at the Times Union Center, perfectly sums up my feelings on Saturday night’s Bob Dylan fiasco.

Kid No. 1: “I guess I expected his voice to not be all that great.”

Kid No. 2: “Dude, Dylan sucks.”

I’m not being irreverent just for irreverence’s sake; Dylan really does not have “it” anymore. Hasn’t in 20-some-odd years. Maybe it’s some character he’s playing (that might explain the weird pencil moustache), or maybe it’s just Dylan being Dylan—either way, it doesn’t click. I’m not looking for him to be the dust-bowl folkie of the early ’60s or even the Rolling Thunder minstrel boy of the mid-’70s, but just a glimmer of the Infidels-era fist-shaking would be nice. Instead, we’ve been fed the same semi-coherent freakshow for a quarter-century. We’re often told that we should appreciate what he is rather than what he was, that merely his appearance should warrant the utmost praise. That’s all bullshit: The only reason we’re still kissing Bob Dylan’s ass is because we’re afraid each record and/or live performance could be his last. (I’m looking at you, Rolling Stone—five-stars for Modern Times, my ass.)

Granted, after singing “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” for more than four decades, pretty much anyone would seem less than enthusiastic about rolling it out on a nightly basis. But on Saturday, that was one of the few recognizable tunes, and only for its chord progression. The lion’s share of Dylan’s set found the old man pitching a sub-Tom Waits grumble at his most tuneful numbers: “Simple Twist of Fate,” for one, was completely unrecognizable until the turnaround at the very end of the verse. And the band, as strong as each player might have been, failed to generate any real heat—imagine if Letterman’s Late Show band decided to play only late-period Grateful Dead covers. Sounds good, sure, but the Dead still suck.

The get-up-and-go-home moment came during “Masters of War.” To paraphrase my companion that evening: If a song has eight verses, I’d better be able to understand every damn word. I sure as hell shouldn’t have to wonder “Is this ‘Highway 61’?” three minutes into a song. Maybe I just don’t dig the blues, but I’d rather listen to the Wallflowers. (Incidentally, opener Amos Lee did a pretty good Jakob Dylan impression.)

To provide contrast, or just because he could, Dylan asked Elvis Costello along on his current tour. Now here’s an example of growing old gracefully: At 53, Costello still displays the fiery passion of his early years, and his solo set showed that he’s not only his generation’s most versatile songwriter, but one of its best singers, too, evidenced by both his way-underutilized falsetto on “Either Side of the Same Town” and the triumphant closing fanfare of “Veronica.” He told stories, waxed political, quoted the Who and Lennon and Def Leppard, and fucked up the chords to “Oliver’s Army,” all with trademark showmanship and vigor.

Is it too late to trade in Dylan’s entire set for another 40 minutes of Elvis?

Damn.

—John Brodeur

Hot and Bothered

Bob Dylan and His Band, Elvis Costello

Times Union Center, Oct. 6

“Don’t expect anything of Bob Dylan, he has done enough!” wrote an indignant fan in the comments section of a local newspaper’s Web site recently, defending the artist from a review that was a bit one-sided in its trashing of Dylan’s recent show at the Times Union Center. The fan’s comment was overly defensive, sure, but held a grain of truth: To seek enjoyment from Dylan’s present work, rather than from his Newport Folk Festival-flouting distant past, you have to let go of your expectations.

If you lionize the guy for his history as an artist who defies expectations and always follows his own path, than maybe you should accept certain things. Such as his right to show up onstage in a mariachi outfit, barking out lyrics in an even gruffer voice than usual, while leading a purple-suited band through nearly unrecognizable versions of classic songs like “Simple Twist of Fate” and “Highway 61 Revisited.” Personally, I’m OK with all that. From where I sat, the crowd was fairly indulgent too, for a time, cheering whenever Dylan got anywhere near a familiar musical phrase. (A friend of mine, seated in a different section of the arena, afterward relayed a story about a concertgoer who was so enthusiastic, yet so alarmingly oblivious, that she yelled out “That Dylan sure can sing!” during Elvis Costello’s opening set.)

Other facets of the show that bothered people, such as Dylan’s near-total lack of interaction with the audience, weren’t a deal-breaker for me. Positioned sideways to the stage in front of his keyboard for much of the time, he acknowledged the crowd only once, with a scant “Thank you” late in the set. Hell, he barely even looked up from his keyboard. That’s fine, I’m sure it wasn’t personal. And the song choices, heavy on more recent material, were OK too, as the mature wisdom and rollicking roadhouse vibe of his last three albums have their own charms.

But, that said, there was little actual enjoyment to be found during this show. The arena setting didn’t help. To relieve boredom, I kept trying to imagine the same show in a roadhouse somewhere, where you wander in off the highway and stumble upon Dylan and his crack band jamming out to this unheard version of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” Now that would be a surreal and mind-blowing experience. Instead, we were left to sweat in an unbearably hot arena, which had no air conditioning despite the unseasonably hot and humid weather, while the crowd grew increasingly squirrelly and restless, some walking out early.

And with no concessions made by Dylan and company to make the arena conditions more tolerable—such as screen monitors for those in the back to get a closer glimpse of the action—watching Dylan and his band jam out strictly to their own tune onstage, without feeding off or acknowledging the crowd at all, started to feel strangely like an off-putting, voyeuristic exercise. Nothing is more rousing these days than an acerbic antiwar song, and when you find yourself straining to hope that “Masters of War”—perhaps the best antiwar song ever written—will be more electrifying than it is, that’s not good.

—Kirsten Ferguson

I Was There

Bob Dylan and His Band, Elvis Costello

Times Union Center, Oct. 6

Bob Dylan has built a catalogue of lyrics that stand as rock music’s greatest contribution to literature, but his uncanniest achievement has always been his relentless self-invention (the forthcoming movie I’m Not There seems to be a long overdue meditation on this aspect of Dylanology). For the last 15 years or so, Dylan has become the grizzled bluesman he’s seemingly always wanted to be, the folkie in blue jeans just another legend lost to time. Ambling on stage, Stratocaster in hand, leading his fedora-topped gang of desperados into a jaunt through “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” Dylan seemed right at home, his fingers shaking out little blues licks to join the bent notes of steel guitarist Donnie Herron and lead player Denny Freeman. Dylan stayed out front for a textbook rendition of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and a jammy “Watching the River Flow” before retreating to his electric keyboard for the remainder of the concert.

One of conventional wisdom’s biggest falsehoods is that Dylan could never sing—I direct the jury to the New Morning and Street Legal albums in an effort to refute this claim. The only thing is, conventional wisdom is now correct: Dylan’s voice has become monotonous and nearly tuneless, and is the biggest reason why I personally can find no use for his last two, near-universally acclaimed “comeback” albums. In concert, this can be overlooked, especially during the songs that don’t suffer from his declamatory cadence. Like many of Dylan’s newer tunes, Love and Theft’s “Summer Days” uses the blues trope of repeating the first line of each verse, making a song of eight-plus verses almost insufferable, especially when it is simply Dylan bellowing braggadocious shit to a woman half his age. Yet classics like “Masters of War” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” have only gained power and relevance over the long stumble of years since they were written, Dylan’s death rattle taking on the befitting tone of the accusatory prophet.

Ironically, as one who hardly ever listens to latter-day Dylan on record, the song that I found most effective this night was “Workingman’s Blues #2,” from last year’s Modern Times. It seemed to sum up Dylan’s current philosophy the best: “You can hang back/Or fight your best on the front line/Sing a little bit of these workingman’s blues.” The so-called Never Ending Tour seems to be a way for Dylan to make sure he’ll die with his boots on.

—Mike Hotter


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